The recency and heterogeneous ramifications underlying the term ‘post-criticism’ defy, for the time being, comprehensive delineations of its features and praxis. Yet, one of the descriptive tags of post-critical theory is the scholarly effort to come to terms with the propositions of post-Structuralism rendering (through deconstruction for example) traditional exegetic theorizing striving for a totality of meaning as futile and contradictory. Contemporary theoreticians are often engaged in departing from conventional epistemological tendencies rooted in Western philosophy and, in consequence, in attempting to form new methodologies. Although divergent in approach, their work tends to reject the hermeneutic criticism attempting to establish, as Louis Armand suggests in “The Judgement of Praxis”, “the nature and meaning of structure,” which is being replaced with focusing “on ways in which structure itself affects a critique and is in fact critical” (17).
It is in the nature of such praxis to reject the notion of discourse as a metaphor used to explicate the meaning of the analysed object. This echoes Heidegger’s existentialist critique of science as being futile whenever it approaches its objects with the intention of arriving at a final, fully comprehensive judgement; a movement which in fact reduces the full properties of Being to mere fragments. Despite the different context, J. Hillis Miller’s delineation of performative differences between religious and secular parables may be used to illustrate the dichotomy between Hermeneutics and Heuretics. His views of the former as a constative and non-performative discourse is based on the assumption that their “meaning […] can hardly be expected to be perspicuous to eyes that cannot see the tenor of which such symbols are the vehicle” (136). On the contrary, Hillis Miller privileges secular parables because their text “brings something into existence that has no basis except in the words” creating something new (139).
A recent example of heuretic theorizing that ‘brings something new into existence’ is Gregory Ulmer’s Teletheory (first published in 1989). Because of Ulmer’s overt theoretical and pedagogical ambitions, this paper will first outline the features of the methodology in order to establish its relation to the 20th century media theory and to provide the ground for further analysis. Although seemingly unrelated, the second part discusses the Picturesque aesthetic with attention focused on those aspects that are revived in Teletheory. In view of the exceptional force that the Picturesque imposed on the 18th century through pictorial print technology, the analogy does not stop at illustrating their overlap. Approaching Teletheory as theorizing emerging in an environment imbued with the visual image, the final parts propose that the potential and implications that Ulmer’s project has for the contemporary theoretical discourse might be comparable with its 18th century ‘predecessor’.
Teletheory is informed by a conviction that the contemporary theoretical discourse as well as knowledge dissemination and acquisition should benefit from the use of electronic technology. It is a continuation of a process started in the 20th century and discernible in the works of numerous preceding theoreticians. Together with a respectable body of criticism arguing for the negative impact of technology on humanity (e.g. Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse or Enid Mumford), there is, within the Western post-1945 scholarship, an obvious inclination to respond to the unprecedented dynamism of technological progress in a way that parallels Ulmer’s positivism.
Gregory Ulmer’s Teletheory presents one of the more recent attempts to address the relationship between technology, cognition, aesthetics and educational institutions. Ulmer’s concerns are, above all, pedagogical. He realizes the crucial role of academia in the dissemination of knowledge as well as its general insistence on alphabetic reading and writing, which are both the main targets of his criticism. Ulmer aims to step out of academic ‘nostalgia’, conservatism and ideological apparatus by formulating the programme of Teletheory hinging on the assumption that the technical capacity to combine voice, print and the visual image may turn the video into a tool of post-critical theorizing. Ulmer also strives to relieve the video of its ‘stigma’ and to ‘bring’ it into the classroom as a technology suitable for heuretic aesthetics.
In view of the crucial role that modern media play in contemporary communication, Ulmer writes in Teletheory about the need to erase the counterproductive separation of scholarly and other discourses present in the age of literacy and orality: “academic discourse does not occur in isolation from other[s] in which we conduct our lives” (18). This forms the base of the Teletheory programme, which is to ‘assimilate’ academic discourse and theorizing to the age of television through the use of popular technology – the video. He justifies the undertaking by claiming that “the love of knowledge that drives academic discourse, is not medium specific” (1). Ulmer does not ‘mourn’ the generally diminishing prominence of alphabetic reading and writing in the advent of the television culture. On the contrary, for him the potential of the video stems from its popularity and from the realization, reminiscent of, for example, Ong and McLuhan, that the present time is a moment of transition from typography to electronic media. He proposes that this transformation necessitates parallel changes in the modes of communication – a process that entails not only departure from literacy, but also the need to acquire new ‘writing’ and ‘reading’ skills – labelled, in his case, with the neologisms electracy and videocy. It is this that the academic discourse, in Ulmer’s view, has to reflect if it is to rid itself of nostalgic and conservative theory and practice.
In his effort to appropriate the academic discourse to modern conditions, Ulmer’s focus on the video is informed by a distinctive feature of contemporary Western culture – the prominence of the visual image in mass media, advertising and the Internet. Richard Beardsworth notes that the “tele-” image has been made “into the prevalent contemporary vehicle of human communication, identification and symbolization at a world level” (20). A simple example of the phenomenon would be the use, in mobile technology, of emoticons – pictographic or ideographic symbols (images, or in a more basic form ASCII characters) for the conveyance of the communicant’s emotions and body language. In a similar context, Vilem Flusser states that “writing, in the sense of the lining-up of letters and other writing signs, seems to have no future or almost none. In the meantime, there are codes that transmit information better than writing signs” (38). He enumerates among such codes films, picture discs and videotapes. For these same reasons, it is the video that Ulmer perceives as a technology that can be used for (academic) discourse in the post-literate age. Its popularity and capacity to mediate non-alphabetic writing relieved of ‘lining-up of letters’ provides him not only with the possibility to erase the separation of discourses, but also with a means of non-verbal theorizing as an alternative to the traditional academic praxis.
To implement the non-linear theory, Ulmer advocates the use of visual and aural samples for the creation of a collage, which has clear antecedents in the aesthetics of the last century. Donald Theall writes about the interwar avant-garde and its fascination with mechanization, electrification and the “alliance between art and technology,” (“The Hieroglyphs”) and points out the modernist concept of writing as ‘poetic engineering’ involving the assemblage of incongruent fragments. Theall draws attention to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to reveal its multiple mechanistic aspects – its being a ‘poetic machine’. For example, he discourses on Joyce’s frequent reference to ‘bits’ as in the case of television, which assembling them into a picture. The programme of Teletheory includes working with ‘bits’ through the use of “fragments of pre-existent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production in some new and heightened bricolage” (14). The central role of a collage in Ulmer’s theory not only echoes 20th century avant-garde movements, but it also signals his general methodological position in the post-critical discourse. In 1983, he announced its characteristics in “The Object of Post Criticism”: “I will argue […] that ‘post-criticism’ (-modernist, -structuralist) is constituted precisely by the application of the devices of modernist art to critical representations; furthermore, that the principal device taken over by the critics and theorists is the compositional pair collage/montage” (83). His aim resembles Jacques Derrida’s claim in Of Grammatology that new literary and theoretical writings are “beginning to write without the line,” and that “one begins also to reread past writing according to a different organization of space. […] Because we are beginning to write, to write differently, we must reread differently” (86-87). The ‘rereading’ in Teletheory is informed by a marked stress on the students’ use of archival material in a subjective and creative assemblage leading to the creation of mystories – personal files incorporating and combining public discourse with private biographies. For Ulmer, such an approach provides his theory with the heuretic element absent in the ‘prescriptive’ academic establishment.
So far, Teletheory has been contextualized with 20th century aesthetics and arts. Yet, because the backbone of Ulmer’s methodology is the stress on the assemblage of visual and other ‘archival’ material, the contextualization should benefit from going further back into history. Comparing Teletheory with the Picturesque reveals striking similarities allowing for the discussion of the potential that Ulmer’s programme has for contemporary theorizing.
One of the theoreticians addressing the Picturesque aesthetic was Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824). The ‘catalogue’ of his gallery was largely informed by the changing focus of the 18th century Grand Tours. British aristocrats later imitated by members of the bourgeoisie, undertook such journeys to the continent, namely to Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, in an act comparable with the rite of passage: to ‘round off’ their education. Their attention was increasingly attracted by the image of the poeticised landscape captured on the canvases of, for example, Claude Lorrain, Gaspar Gughet Poussin or Salvator Rosa. Travellers’ interest in this type of painting created a demand supplied not only by the painters themselves, but also by local imitators and printers. Originals and copies were subsequently imported to England as souvenirs and artefacts, initiating a marked popularity that grew almost into a cult. Its dimensions were boosted by print technology disseminating the style through book collections such as the famous Liber Veritatis (1777) dedicated to Lorrain. Moreover, new British painters like Richard Wilson, William Taverner or Thomas Gainsborough gradually absorbed the style of the Italian masters. As the momentum of its popularity grew, the Picturesque, as a new form of painterly expression, developed alongside the established topographical painting (the style derived from the 17th century Dutch ‘landskip’ drawing and also from Wenceslaus Hollar of Prague, credited with its introduction to Britain).
Louis Armand states in “The Gutenberg Effect” that the post-1945 technological progress “has brought about a radical (if innocuous) shift in the way in which we think about such fundamental ideas as space and time, and our relation to them” (132). Though obviously less drastic and more localised, the Picturesque painting made a temporary but significant contribution to the interaction between the subject and topos – temporal and geographical. It is best described as a reversal of the established Neoclassical culture-nature relation consisting in art imitating la belle nature: the Picturesque consisted in the aesthetisation of the natural environment so that it corresponded with painting— Picturesque landscape was that which resembled a picture. The aesthetic involved idealizing and ‘inventing’ of a space to suit its requirements, which was a process contrary to the topographical painting marked with a documenting function. Artists affected by the Picturesque did not strive for verbatim imitations of external reality. On the contrary, they immersed their art in subjectification motivated by the need to create an image of the ideal topos. Picturesque art represses factuality through improving it (e.g. Capability Browne, Humphrey Repton). It was an approach to space involving a new conceptual frame and interpretative prism. “Interpretation,” Martin Heidegger wrote, “is grounded in something we see in advance – in fore-sight. This foresight takes the ‘first cut’ out of what has been taken into our forehaving. […] the interpretation has already decided for a definite way of conceiving it [object of observation], either with finality or with reservations; it is grounded in something we grasp in advance – in fore-conception” (368-369). Clearly, to interpret topos in the idiom of the Picturesque involved a concept of the idealised space (diarists often comment on the ordinary local folk as ignorant of the picturesqueness surrounding them), resulting not only in the appropriation of topos to fit the characteristics of the landscape painting – a form of fore-conception, but also in the formation of a new aesthetic with a powerful impact on the 18th century theorizing.
The Picturesque is an aesthetic with a comprehensive vision. It is a way of ‘reading’ and interpreting a landscape. It contains a set of definable theoretical ideas that had to be learned before a landscape could be both aesthetically appreciated in its idiom, and its principles applied in the practice of ‘writing’ – producing new objects. To be called Picturesque in the 18th century, the inventing of non-existent space had to comply with a prescribed content and form. Individual artworks are paroles, textual or visual, of an underlying system and ideology. A substantial part of the principles were not only the choice of material, but also its organization and presentation. Moreover, unlike the categories of the Sublime and Beautiful (re-)emerging simultaneously, the Picturesque retained a strong focus on the visual (from Latin pictura, from pingere pict - ‘paint’). Its practice required the knowledge of techniques, selection and arranging of stereotypical elements manipulated towards the achievement of the core ideological essence: the image of idealised reality. In all forms of expression, the Picturesque involved aspects of medieval culture and the idyllic, sunlit Arcadian scenery: a ruined castle or church, bridge crossing a meandering river, exaggerated mountain, peasant at a safe distance, three-part compositional division with the background dissolving into the hazy sky, rough texture, irregular, wild and untamed contours. These were combined with the pastoral fantasy of poignant golden light, Arcadian tree offering shade to a piper, shepherd or the lute player dressed in vivid colours. When the Picturesque visual theory expanded to affect landscape designs towards what is paradoxically called ‘English parkland’, another common feature was added: the folly of a ruined Greek temple. In this context, Louis Armand in “Interface Ecologies” writes that “the surface effect of the pastoral ‘genre’ is […] a mechanism of analysis and synthesis, recombination, collage or montage, whose material organization is subject to aesthetic revaluation” (122).
Having rooted in the landscape painting, the Picturesque quickly outgrew the boundaries of the visual arts. It affected landscape gardening (Humphrey Repton), architecture (John Nash, Henry B. Latrobe), and (topographical) writing. In parallel with the continuing tradition of descriptive accounts and travel guides aiming at, like topographical painting, documentation and exactness, what emerged was not only poeticised and subjective textual topography striving to match the nature of Picturesque paintings, but also a similarly inclined body of imaginative prose and poetry by even the most canonical writers of the time (e.g. William Wordsworth). Besides such imaginative and topographical literature, the underlying features of the Picturesque were eventually ‘translated’ into an extensive, verbal critical discourse. Alongside other philosophies (Shaftsbury, etc.), there arose a substantial body of pre-Romantic textual theorizing and attempts to pin down its characteristics. William Gilpin, Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight himself were the main theoreticians. Often contradictory, their efforts are an admission of the difficulty to grasp in the alphabetic texture, the ‘language’ of images and its non-verbal nature. This inability to fully explicate in verbal discourse the features of non-verbal ‘writing’ corresponds with John Berger’s view of an image, which can be used to “define our experience more precisely in areas where words are inadequate” (in Ulmer, 2004, 13).
It can safely be assumed that had it not been for print technology, the impact of the Picturesque on the 18th century aesthetics would have been significantly reduced. Most probably, the paintings would have been accessible to a limited audience. But the pictorial print propelled the style into the public domain, to other forms of discourse, whence, to use McLuhan’s views of technology as a phenomenon active in creating a new human environment (1), it helped to reshape late 18th century imagination, ‘reading’ and ‘inventing’ of landscape, and our relation to it. For example, when the 18th century political unrest on the continent escalated to the Napoleonic Wars, British travellers turned their attention to the domestic scene and ‘rewrote’, in painting and writing, the local space in the idiom of the Picturesque. Hence, there is a very firm link between the pictorial print, popular culture, the aesthetic and the idealization or romanticization of topoi through its ‘re-reading’ and ‘rewriting’. 18th century entrepreneurial printers using copperplate and steel engravings supplied the market abundantly. Their work increased the effect of the aesthetic, which allowed for the creation of new artwork, in written, painted, or parkland form: copies elicited originals. The overall consequence is that the Picturesque theory and practice “constitute the major English contribution to European aesthetics” (Watkin, vii).
The Picturesque is also an early example of an aesthetic imbued with stress on the visual space: it originated in 17th century Italian and 18th century British painting and consisted in the montage of ‘standardized’ items depicting the idealized topos. Its popularity expanded through print technology, an aspect of popular culture at the time, into other forms of discourse. Its prominence grew over several decades, contributing to the alteration of the traditional relation between subject and space – a phenomenon that reached a climax in Romanticism. More importantly for the present discussion, in the second half of the 18th century, Picturesque painting initiated a substantial critical debate attempting to define its principles in alphabetic theorizing. However, it was merely an act of retrospective summation of its ‘mechanics’. Therefore, the Picturesque is an example of an aesthetic that originated in a visual and non-verbal code. It is a non-alphabetic theory that expanded to affect (artistic) perception of space, other forms of expression and linear theorizing. It can be assumed that the idealised visual imagery had the power to rewrite not only the subject-topos relation, but also the aesthetics of the time. It ‘reshuffled’, to use Ulmer’s terminology, the pre-existent cultural material of ‘high’ (classical) and ‘low’ (medieval) culture kept apart in Classicism and used in the post-modern poetics. Despite the impossibility to incorporate voice, the stress on the non-verbal and visual image together with its preoccupation with bricolage allows us to consider the Picturesque to be an influential historical antecedent of Teletheory.
This essay is by no means trying to suggest that in terms of communicating in and writing with visual codes, the Picturesque was the only antecedent of Teletheory. Besides the 20th century avant-garde, Egyptian hieroglyphic script, for example, consisting in the combination of icons and symbol to convey meaning, can be viewed from a similar perspective. Yet, the Picturesque provides a more suitable analogy for at least two reasons. Firstly, like Teletheory it entailed the ‘crossover’ of previously ‘autonomous’ items embedded in different cultural frames. Secondly, in view of the impact that the Picturesque exercised on the 18th century theorizing, it is natural to ask whether Teletheory, proposed at the turn of the 21st century, can be expected to use the image to match its 18th century predecessor.
Besides others, the term mediscape is used in analyses explicating the ways in which media space affects the perception of reality. It is among the preoccupation of media theory to point out the fact that media create a distorted semblance of reality. Numerous mainstream entertainment programmes, advertising on television, in print and on the Internet construct these simulacra with complex social, economic and psychological consequences. It follows that the visual imagery, being the core ingredient in modern mediascape, also has a central role in the creation and indoctrination of a certain type of an idealised topos. Jean Baudrillard claims that the consumer society “with its endless networks of media and advertising, images [...] precede any reality to which they might be said to refer” (104). This phenomenon is what the Picturesque landscape painting achieved through print: it used the visual image to create an imaginary idealised topos consequently influencing thinking about space.
Ulmer himself is aware of the link between ideology and technology. For him, the camera – the highlight of representational technology – is an instrument that can be used to arrange in order to cater for “demands, desires, fantasies, speculations.” (Comolli, in Ulmer, 2004, 8) Yet, in Teletheory he hopes to use it to rid itself of “repeating the deceptions of the ideology that created it” through its capacity to ‘look’ at itself and through showing the invisible controlling apparatus in order to “do the work of disillusionment” (9). In view of the contemporary mediscape dominated with the visual image, Teletheory, using the camera, seems to be arising in an environment that gives it sufficient prerequisites for being a successful methodology and its impact could potentially match the effects of the Picturesque. Moreover, Teletheory reflects the transition to modern reading and writing in images, which brings it closer to popular culture and distances it from the established apparatus.
One more analogy between the Picturesque and Teletheory needs to be outlined. Ulmer’s programme surpasses the Picturesque in terms of defying normative requirements. The Picturesque prescribed not just the technique of ‘writing’ and ‘reading’, but also, to a great extent, the content. With certain tolerance to subjectivity, its practitioners remained within a demarcated field consisting of defined material and form, whose nature reflects pre-romantic aesthetics and philosophy. On the contrary, Ulmer’s methodology in Teletheory allows for an absolute freedom of expression. The author stresses the unrestricted choice of material leading to infinite ‘combinatory’ possibilities.
In his review of Ulmer’s Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, Tom Conley quotes from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked: “It [scientific research] is no longer a question of sailing toward other lands: only the voyage is real, not the earth, and the routes have been replaced by the rules of navigation” (in Conley, 147). Similarly, one can say that the practice of Teletheory enacts the phrase ‘a journey is a destination’. Its application to theorizing echoes Picturesque journeys only in the sense that many a traveller departed from the tradition of prescribed itineraries towards an individual adventure of exploring, wandering and appreciation of landscape that had ‘learned to speak’. But due to the restrictions of the aesthetic itself, practitioners of the Picturesque were bound by following a prescribed journey towards an ‘assigned’ destination – the idealised topos. Teletheory, offering freedom of expression, might experience a growing popularity because it allows for its practitioners’ unlimited creativity and culture, gender, on otherwise ‘specific’ perspectives. It employs existing material not as ‘holy relics’ and objects of analyses, but in non-nostalgic, forward-looking inventive, heuretic ways. Individuals draw from the ‘endless’ database of archival ‘texts’. It is a pedagogy that encourages unrestricted cruising, exploration and risk taking.
20th century scholarship has provided extensive argumentation for the relation between technology and knowledge. The invention of the alphabet and typography was accompanied with radical changes in knowledge dissemination whose impact reached wider social and economic issues. At present, when the electronic media outrival more traditional technologies, it is only appropriate to expect equally drastic consequences involving type of knowledge, its mediation as well as ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ skills. Inevitably, the aesthetic discourse must participate too, especially when traditional forms of theorizing seem obsolete. Ulmer’s Teletheory seems progressive and potent. It is a heuretic phenomenon, not just in the sense of the type of theorizing it advocates, but also because of its methodological inventiveness.
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